The Russia facts are hiding in plain sight

David Ignatius writes: President Trump’s recent denunciations of the Russia investigation recall the famous legal advice: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”

Trump shouted out his defense earlier this month: “What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion!” he told reporters over the whir of his helicopter on the White House lawn. Since then, Trump’s supporters have been waging a bitter counterattack against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, alleging bias and demanding: “Investigate the investigators.”

But what do the facts show? There is a growing, mostly undisputed body of evidence describing contacts between Trump associates and Russia-linked operatives. Trump partisans have claimed that Mueller’s investigation is biased because some members of his staff supported Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton. But Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein disagreed Wednesday, arguing that Mueller “is running his office appropriately.”

As Republicans seek to discredit the investigation, it’s useful to remember just what we’ve learned so far about how the Trump campaign sought harmful information about Clinton from sources that, according to U.S. intelligence, were linked to Moscow. This isn’t a fuzzy narrative where the truth is obscured; in the Trump team’s obsessive pursuit of damaging Clinton emails and other negative information, the facts are hiding in plain sight. [Continue reading…]

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House intelligence panel is rushing to complete Russia probe

The New York Times reports: The House Intelligence Committee is racing to complete its investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, scheduling a host of witness interviews here and in New York for next week as Congress heads for its break, and, Democrats said, leaving other leads unfollowed.

Some of the most important witnesses are to be interviewed in New York by committee staff early next week, possibly leaving Democrats to choose between attending those depositions or voting on the massive tax bill coming before the House.

And in an indication that Republicans hope to wrap up their probe, the House committee has yet to schedule a single interview after the holidays, according to two committee officials familiar with the schedule. That has left Democrats fearful that the majority is trying to finish the investigative portion of its work by the end of next week, before the committee can connect the dots on one of the most serious efforts by a hostile foreign actor to hijack American democracy.

“I feel no need to apologize for concluding an investigation,” said Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, one of the Republicans leading the investigation. [Continue reading…]

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FBI agent removed from Russia probe held views about Trump similar to those expressed by Tillerson

The Wall Street Journal reports: Two FBI employees who used to work for Special Counsel Robert Mueller have already been criticized by Republicans for texts they shared insulting President Donald Trump.

A review of their correspondence shows Mr. Trump wasn’t their only target: They held dim views of other prominent figures, from Chelsea Clinton to Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder to their new boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The 300-plus texts, contained in 90 pages of Justice Department documents handed over to Congress late Tuesday, reveal a more complete portrait of Peter Strzok, a senior counterintelligence agent, and lawyer Lisa Page, dealing with the stresses of their jobs, handling politically sensitive investigations, and their extramarital relationship.

Mr. Strzok was the lead investigator into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information on her email server, and he later was spearheading the work of agents assigned to Mr. Mueller’s team. When Mr. Mueller learned of his text messages this summer, Mr. Strzok was reassigned to the bureau’s human-resources division. Ms. Page worked temporarily for Mr. Mueller but has been reassigned.

Neither Mr. Strzok or Ms. Page could be reached for comment, and a spokesman for Mr. Mueller has declined to comment on the matter.

Mr. Trump’s allies say that their critiques of Mr. Trump—they called the then-candidate “an idiot,” “douche” and “TERRIFYING”—call into question whether Mr. Mueller’s probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election can be free of bias.

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended the integrity of the Mr. Mueller’s investigation, saying it was free of any bias or taint.

Officials described the messages as having been flagged by the Justice Department’s inspector general as relevant to its investigation into how the Federal Bureau of Investigation handled its probe of Mrs. Clinton’s server.

Although many of their texts targeted Mr. Trump, others also drew their ire. Over the course of 16 months of correspondence, starting in August 2015 and ending on Dec. 1, 2016, that was culled from their work phones, Mr. Strzok said he loathed Congress and called presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) an “idiot.” He suggested the death penalty was appropriate for Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor who pilfered reams of sensitive information. He said Ms. Clinton, daughter of Bill and Mrs. Clinton, was “self-entitled.” And he described House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) as “a jerky.”

He said, “I’m worried about what happens if HRC is elected,” apparently referring to Mrs. Clinton. He didn’t elaborate on his concerns. [Continue reading…]

What would be truly nightmarish would be to live in a country where government officials on all ranks felt duty bound to publicly and privately express unqualified admiration for political leaders.

Would Trump and his supporters prefer we live in a fascist state? Perhaps.

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Trump campaign’s digital director does not deny having had contacts with foreign governments

Business Insider reports: The ranking members of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees want to subpoena two of the data firms hired by President Donald Trump’s campaign team for documents related to their potential engagement with foreign actors like Russia and WikiLeaks during the election.

Reps. Elijah Cummings and Jerry Nadler sent a letter to Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix and Giles-Parscale cofounder Brad Parscale — who also served as the Trump campaign’s digital director — in October. The letter asked whether their firms received “information from a foreign government or foreign actor” at any point during the election.

The letter was also sent to the heads of Deep Root Analytics, TargetPoint Consulting, and The Data Trust, which were among the outfits hired by the Republican National Committee to bolster the Trump campaign’s data operation.

Whereas Deep Root, TargetPoint, and The Data Trust responded to the documents request, Cambridge Analytica did not. Parscale’s response, moreover, was insufficient, the Democrats said.

“As I made clear in the 60 Minutes interview cited in your letter, I share your concerns and would not want foreign governments meddling in our elections,” Parscale wrote, referring to his interview with CBS earlier this year about Russia’s election interference. “But as I stated in that same interview, I do not have any firsthand knowledge of foreign interference in the 2016 election.”

He added: “I respectfully decline to make document productions and respond to inquiries that are duplicative” of the work being done by the congressional intelligence committees and special counsel Robert Mueller.”

Parscale’s letter mirrored those written by the RNC data firms and used virtually the same language — with one notable exception. Whereas the firms’ letters included a line denying that they had had contact with any “foreign government or foreign actor,” Parscale’s did not. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller sought emails of Trump campaign data firm, Cambridge Analytica

The Wall Street Journal reports: Special Counsel Robert Mueller has requested that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that worked for President Donald Trump’s campaign, turn over documents as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Mueller asked the firm in the fall to turn over the emails of any Cambridge Analytica employees who worked on the Trump campaign, in a sign that the special counsel is probing the Trump campaign’s data operation.

The special counsel’s request, which the firm complied with, wasn’t previously known. The emails had earlier been turned over to the House Intelligence Committee, the people said, adding that both requests were voluntary.

On Thursday, Cambridge Analytica Chief Executive Alexander Nix interviewed via videoconference with the House Intelligence Committee, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Mr. Mueller’s request for employee emails was made before media outlets reported in October that Mr. Nix had contacted WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange during the 2016 campaign, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Sweden-based WikiLeaks last year published a trove of Hillary Clinton -related emails that U.S. intelligence agencies later determined had been stolen by Russian intelligence and given to the website. [Continue reading…]

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Lindsey Graham: There’s a 30 percent chance Trump attacks North Korea

The Atlantic reports: It’s become a grim ritual in Washington foreign-policy circles to assess the chances that the United States and North Korea stumble into war. But on Wednesday Lindsey Graham did something different: He estimated the odds that the Trump administration deliberately strikes North Korea first, to stop it from acquiring the capability to target the U.S. mainland with a long-range, nuclear-tipped missile. And the senator’s numbers were remarkably high.

“I would say there’s a three in 10 chance we use the military option,” Graham predicted in an interview. If the North Koreans conduct an additional test of a nuclear bomb—their seventh—“I would say 70 percent.”

Graham said that the issue of North Korea came up during a round of golf he played with the president on Sunday. “It comes up all the time,” he said.

“War with North Korea is an all-out war against the regime,” he said. “There is no surgical strike option. Their [nuclear-weapons] program is too redundant, it’s too hardened, and you gotta assume the worst, not the best. So if you ever use the military option, it’s not to just neutralize their nuclear facilities—you gotta be willing to take the regime completely down.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump allies say Tillerson has ‘not learned his lesson’ and cannot continue in job for long

The Washington Post reports: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed focused this week on rebooting his image as a beleaguered Cabinet member on the outs with his boss and his own employees — holding a rare town hall with employees, promising foreign trips into 2018 and saying he is “learning” to enjoy his job.

But then he went off script by offering another invitation for diplomatic talks with nuclear-armed North Korea, putting him at odds once again with President Trump and senior White House officials, who are increasingly exasperated with the secretary of state and say he cannot remain in his job for the long term.

The episode highlights the deep distrust between the White House and Tillerson and suggests how difficult it will be for the relationship to continue. While Trump and Tillerson have clashed on several policy issues — including negotiating with North Korea, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and planning to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — much of the distance between them seems personal and probably irreversible, White House officials said.

Tillerson, one White House official said, “had not learned his lesson from the last time,” when Trump publicly rebuked his top diplomat on Twitter over the wisdom of talking to North Korea. [Continue reading…]

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Sheriffs-gone-wild in Trump’s America

The New York Times reports from Decatur, Alabama: One evening last fall, an informant for the Morgan County sheriff entered the office of a small construction business near this old river town and, he said, secretly installed spyware on a company computer. He had no warrant.

The sheriff, Ana Franklin, wanted to know who was leaking information about her to a blogger known as the Morgan County Whistleblower.

The blogger had been zeroing in on the sheriff’s finances, specifically $150,000 that by law should have gone toward feeding inmates in the county jail. Instead it had been invested in a now-bankrupt used-car dealership run by a convicted bank swindler.

Now the sheriff has become ensnared, along with others, in a wide-ranging government investigation. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking at her stewardship of taxpayer money, as well as the dealership and its financial links to prominent people in town, including several state law enforcement agents, according to more than a half-dozen people who say they have spoken to the F.B.I. Government divers recently searched the bottom of a creek for evidence.

What, if anything, investigators have uncovered is not known. But The New York Times found that since taking office in 2011, Sheriff Franklin has failed to comply with court orders, has threatened critics with legal action and has not publicly accounted for tens of thousands of dollars raised through charity events.

Her activities point to questions about the broad powers afforded America’s county sheriffs, newly emboldened in the era of President Trump. Unlike appointed municipal police chiefs, sheriffs answer only to voters, giving them often-unfettered dominion not just over county law enforcement but over the jail and the lucrative service contracts that go with it. [Continue reading…]

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In ten months, Trump has lied six times as often as his predecessor lied in eight years

The New York Times reports: After we published a list of President Trump’s lies this summer, we heard a common response from his supporters. They said, in effect: Yes, but if you made a similar list for previous presidents, it would be just as bad.

We’ve set out to make that list. Here, you will find our attempt at a comprehensive catalog of the falsehoods that Barack Obama told while he was president. (We also discuss George W. Bush below, although the lack of real-time fact-checking during his presidency made a comprehensive list impossible.)

We applied the same conservative standard to Obama and Trump, counting only demonstrably and substantially false statements. The result: Trump is unlike any other modern president. He seems virtually indifferent to reality, often saying whatever helps him make the case he’s trying to make.

In his first 10 months in office, he has told 103 separate untruths, many of them repeatedly. Obama told 18 over his entire eight-year tenure. That’s an average of about two a year for Obama and about 124 a year for Trump. [Continue reading…]

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Record number of journalists jailed as Turkey, China, Egypt pay scant price for repression

Elana Beiser reports: The number of journalists imprisoned worldwide hit another new record in 2017, and for the second consecutive year more than half of those jailed for their work are behind bars in Turkey, China, and Egypt. The pattern reflects a dismal failure by the international community to address a global crisis in freedom of the press.

Far from isolating repressive countries for their authoritarian behavior, the United States, in particular, has cozied up to strongmen such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Chinese President Xi Jinping. At the same time, President Donald Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric, fixation on Islamic extremism, and insistence on labeling critical media “fake news” serves to reinforce the framework of accusations and legal charges that allow such leaders to preside over the jailing of journalists. Globally, nearly three-quarters of journalists are jailed on anti-state charges, many under broad and vague terror laws, while the number imprisoned on a charge of “false news,” though modest, rose to a record 21.

In its annual prison census, CPJ found 262 journalists behind bars around the world in relation to their work, a new record after a historical high of 259 last year. The worst three jailers are responsible for jailing 134–or 51 percent–of the total. CPJ has been conducting an annual survey of journalists in jail since the early 1990s. [Continue reading…]

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Doubting the intelligence, Trump pursues Putin and leaves a Russian threat unchecked

The Washington Post reports: In the final days before Donald Trump was sworn in as president, members of his inner circle pleaded with him to acknowledge publicly what U.S. intelligence agencies had already concluded — that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was real.

Holding impromptu interventions in Trump’s 26th-floor corner office at Trump Tower, advisers — including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and designated chief of staff, Reince Priebus — prodded the president-elect to accept the findings that the nation’s spy chiefs had personally presented to him on Jan. 6.

They sought to convince Trump that he could affirm the validity of the intelligence without diminishing his electoral win, according to three officials involved in the sessions. More important, they said that doing so was the only way to put the matter behind him politically and free him to pursue his goal of closer ties with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

“This was part of the normalization process,” one participant said. “There was a big effort to get him to be a standard president.”

But as aides persisted, Trump became agitated. He railed that the intelligence couldn’t be trusted and scoffed at the suggestion that his candidacy had been propelled by forces other than his own strategy, message and charisma.

Told that members of his incoming Cabinet had already publicly backed the intelligence report on Russia, Trump shot back, “So what?” Admitting that the Kremlin had hacked Democratic Party emails, he said, was a “trap.”

As Trump addressed journalists on Jan. 11 in the lobby of Trump Tower, he came as close as he ever would to grudging acceptance. “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” he said, adding that “we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”

As hedged as those words were, Trump regretted them almost immediately. “It’s not me,” he said to aides afterward. “It wasn’t right.”

Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House.

The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government. [Continue reading…]

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Autocrats and dictators follow Trump’s lead by attacking ‘fake news’

The New York Times reports: President Trump routinely invokes the phrase “fake news” as a rhetorical tool to undermine opponents, rally his political base and try to discredit a mainstream American media that is aggressively investigating his presidency.

But he isn’t the only leader enamored with the phrase. Following Mr. Trump’s example, many of the world’s autocrats and dictators are taking a shine to it, too.

When Amnesty International released a report about prison deaths in Syria, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, retorted that “we are living in a fake-news era.” President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, who is steadily rolling back democracy in his country, blamed the global media for “lots of false versions, lots of lies,” saying “this is what we call ‘fake news’ today.”

In Myanmar, where international observers accuse the military of conducting a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya Muslims, a security official told The New York Times that “there is no such thing as Rohingya,” adding: “It is fake news.” In Russia, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, told a CNN reporter to “stop spreading lies and fake news.” Her ministry now uses a big red stamp, “FAKE,” on its website to label news stories it dislikes.

Around the world, authoritarians, populists and other political leaders have seized on the phrase “fake news” — and the legitimacy conferred upon it by an American president — as a tool for attacking their critics and, in some cases, deliberately undermining the institutions of democracy. In countries where press freedom is restricted or under considerable threat — including Russia, China, Turkey, Libya, Poland, Hungary, Thailand, Somalia and others — political leaders have invoked “fake news” as justification for beating back media scrutiny. [Continue reading…]

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‘Nikki Haley stuck a knife in his back’: Roger Stone is already writing the story of Trump’s downfall

Gabriel Sherman writes: In the closing days of the Alabama Senate election, Steve Bannon told people that Donald Trump’s political survival depended on Trump supporting Roy Moore. Bannon’s argument, according to those who spoke with him, was that establishment Republicans and Democrats would use Moore’s defeat as a political weapon to force Trump to face the sexual harassment allegations that have dogged him since the 2016 election. Bannon called Alabama Trump’s “firebreak.”

Last night, the flames leapt into the West Wing. Moore’s dramatic loss to Democrat Doug Jones in a state Trump carried by 62 percent is sowing panic among some of Trump’s kitchen Cabinet. “This shows the public is taking the sexual harassment issue seriously. The president has a big problem,” a Republican close to the White House told me. Even before the election, Democrats renewed calls for Trump to resign for his alleged treatment of women. This week, three of Trump’s accusers launched a media tour to elevate the issue. Even a member of Trump’s administration weighed in. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said on Face the Nation that Trump’s accusers should be “heard” and “dealt with.”

One Trump ally is making plans to commercialize Trump’s downfall. Longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone told me he is working on a book titled The Unmaking of the President as part of a multi-book deal with Skyhorse Publishing. (Last fall, Skyhorse published Stone’s campaign account, The Making of the President 2016.) “I’ve been writing it as we go along,” he told me. [Continue reading…]

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Rex Tillerson, in meeting with U.S. diplomats, says Russia ‘interfered’ in election

The Daily Beast reports: Beleaguered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged in a closed-door meeting with U.S. diplomats on Tuesday that Russia “interfered in democratic processes here,” something President Trump still describes as “fake news” intended to delegitimize his presidency.

It’s a precarious position for Tillerson to take, even privately. Tillerson’s job is on thin ice, as rumors swirl that he will be swapped out for CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Within the department, Tillerson’s support is wafer-thin, as diplomats have come to see his purpose as hollowing out U.S. diplomacy.

Publicly, Tillerson has been a bit more circumspect about the Kremlin question. In April, Tillerson called the “question of Russian interference” in the election something that was “fairly well-established.” In August, Tillerson told his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that the election meddling engendered “serious mistrust between our two countries.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump suffers ‘big black eye’ in Alabama

Politico reports: Doug Jones didn’t just defeat Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate race on Tuesday night — he administered the most crushing and embarrassing political blow of President Donald Trump’s young presidency.

Jones’ win meant that Trump, who had endorsed Luther Strange in the Republican primary before backing Moore in the general election, threw his weight behind the losing candidate not once, but twice, in the Alabama race.

It was an extraordinary outcome in a state that Trump carried by 28 points in last year’s presidential election. Jones’ victory, the first by a Democrat in Alabama in 25 years, exposed the limits of the president’s power in a party that is now frequently referred to as “the party of Trump.” Indeed, though rank-and-file Republicans have resisted, fought, and feared Trump’s influence over GOP voters, Tuesday’s election results suggested that, whatever the president’s power, he is incapable of boosting other anti-establishment candidates to office.

In addition to supporting both losing candidates in the Alabama race, Trump also endorsed Ed Gillespie, who lost the Virginia governor’s race last month. [Continue reading…]

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Alabama election result seen as ‘miracle’ in a Europe horrified by Trump

The Washington Post reports: Roy Moore’s defeat on Tuesday evening may have come as a relief to liberal Americans, but in Europe it was taken as a sign that the United States has not totally lost its moral compass.

Last year’s election victory of President Trump, who is deeply unpopular across Western Europe, appears to have severely damaged the United States’ status as a role model in Europe. The defeat of Moore was interpreted by many as a reversal for Trump and a sign that all is not lost across the Atlantic.

Relief over the Alabama election result in Europe was far from being limited to liberal media outlets, and was widely seen as a “notable setback for President Donald Trump,” as France’s liberal Liberation newspaper wrote. Its center-left competitor Le Monde declared the Tuesday result a “referendum about Trump’s political agenda” and Britain’s Financial Times agreed that that it was “a big blow for Mr Trump.

That sentiment was perhaps most pronounced in Germany, where confidence in Trump has been even lower than in neighboring France and Britain. Center-left German weekly Die Zeit framed the defeat as “the miracle of Alabama.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump attacks Gillibrand in tweet critics say is sexually suggestive and demeaning

The Washington Post reports: President Trump attacked Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in a sexually suggestive tweet Tuesday morning that implied Gillibrand would do just about anything for money, prompting a swift and immediate backlash.

“Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Charles E. Schumer and someone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump,” the president wrote. “Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!”


The tweet came as Trump is already facing negative publicity from renewed allegations from three women who had previously accused him of sexual harassment, which are coming amid the #MeToo movement that is roiling the nation and forcing powerful men accused of sexual misbehavior from their posts. [Continue reading…]

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As Russia probes progress, one name is missing: Bannon’s

Politico reports: As special Russia counsel Robert Mueller wraps up interviews with senior current and former White House staff, one name has been conspicuously absent from public chatter surrounding the probe: Steve Bannon.

President Donald Trump’s former White House chief strategist and campaign chief executive played critical roles in episodes that have become central to Mueller’s probe as well as to multiple Hill investigations.

Bannon was a key bystander when Trump decided to fire national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with foreign officials. He was among those Trump consulted before firing FBI Director James Comey, whose dismissal prompted Mueller’s appointment — a decision Bannon subsequently described to “60 Minutes” as the biggest mistake “in modern political history.”

And during the campaign, Bannon was the one who offered the introduction to data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, whose CEO has since acknowledged trying to coordinate with WikiLeaks on the release of emails from Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state.

Yet Bannon hasn’t faced anywhere near the degree of public scrutiny in connection to the probe as others in Trump’s inner circle, including son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner — who was recently interviewed by Mueller’s team — or Donald Trump Jr., who was interviewed on Capitol Hill last week about his own Russian connections. [Continue reading…]

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